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Elderberry Blossom
Elderberry Blossom

Elderberries are popular for their unusual taste in pies, jellies, and jams. They are occasionally used in winemaking. The plants are very hardy (usually to Zone 4 but some kinds to Zone 3), and because they flower in late June, the crop is seldom damaged by late spring frost.

They are attractive and easy to grow, and are great in landscape plantings. Elderberries contain more phosphorus and potassium than any other temperate fruit crop. The fruit is also rich in vitamin C.

Elderberries grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, fertility, and acidity. It's a myth that they prefer swampy areas. In fact, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Plant elderberries in spring, as soon as possible after they arrive from the nursery to prevent plants from drying out. Space plants 6 to 10 feet apart. Elderberries are shallow rooted, so keep them well-watered during the first season. Plants are easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings taken when plants are dormant.

Elderberries respond well to fertilization. In addition to incorporating manure or compost before planting, apply additional fertilizer annually in early spring. Apply 1/8 pound of ammonium nitrate (or .5 lbs. 10-10-10) for each year of the plant's age, up to one pound per plant (or up to 4 lbs. 10-10-10).

Weed Control
The most difficult problem faced when growing elderberries is weed control. Because they have shallow roots, do not cultivate deeper than 2 inches. After the first year, it is best to avoid disturbing the soil at all because the slightest injury can damage the fibrous root system or kill one of the new upright shoots. Use a combination of pulling weeds by hand while they are still small, mowing and mulching to control weeds without disturbing the elderberry roots. Once you develop a thick hedgerow of plants, elderberries can suppress weeds quite well.

Harvest elderberry fruit in late August through early September, depending on the cultivar. When ripe, the entire cluster should be -removed and the berries stripped from the cluster for use. Uncooked berries have a dark purple juice and are astringent and inedible. Use the fruit as soon as possible or keep it at a cool temperature for later use. It is difficult to transport elderberries because the fruits fall off the cluster during transit.

Elderberries send up many new canes each year. The canes usually reach full height in one season and develop lateral branches in the second. Flowers and fruit develop on the tips of the current season's growth, often on the new canes but especially on laterals. Second-year elderberry canes with good lateral development are the most fruitful. In the third or fourth year, older wood tends to lose vigor and become weak. In late winter to early spring while the plants are dormant, remove all dead, broken or weak canes, plus all canes more than three years old. Leave an equal number of one, two, and three-year-old canes.

Choosing cultivars
Individual flowers are small, white, and borne in large compound clusters. They are nearly self-unfruitful, so plant two different cultivars within 60 feet of each other to provide adequate cross-pollination. 'Adams No. 1' and 'Adams No. 2' are two old cultivars, introduced by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1926. They are strong, vigorous, productive, hardy to Zone 4 and bear large fruit clusters. They also ripen late, with fruit maturing in early September. Other cultivars with large clusters and berries include 'York',' Johns',' Kent','Nova', and 'Scotia'. 'York' is somewhat more productive than the Adams series, and the berries tend to be larger.

Diseases and Insects
Elderberry plants are generally free of pests, which makes them great for landscape plantings. Powdery mildew is a problem in some years, especially when it affects the fruit. Cane borers occasionally cause damage, but are usually not present in large numbers. Pruning out infested canes is the best remedy for home gardeners.

Copyright, Department of Horticulture, Cornell University.

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